An Old Suitcase's Journey Home

(Nikki Kahn - The Washington Post)
By Darragh Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The suitcase -- a valise, really -- was no bigger than two briefcases, just an old, brown thing tucked into a first-floor crawl space.

The demolition guys found it. Guys whose job is to clobber, destroy and trash. Theirs is not a sentimental enterprise. They are workers who wield annihilating hammers: sledgehammers, jackhammers.

And yet, the suitcase stopped them. For a year, maybe longer, they kept it right by the job box where they stored their tools, in the 11-story downtown building they were gutting and turning into condos. Every morning when Paul Barnett reported to work, he made sure the suitcase was still there. Someday, he and another guy told each other, they would find the owner and return it.

Not that it was worth much.

Inside the mottled, fabric-covered case, whose handle was missing and whose latches had torn off or disintegrated long ago, was a pile of photo albums: baby pictures and family trips, black-and-white photos bordered by white scalloped edges. There was a 1924 high school yearbook, and a 1919 letter releasing a man named Shaughnessy from active duty in "The World War," and a snapshot of a little boy learning to ride a bike, and some 8x10s of a pretty woman in a bathing cap and a windblown man posing at the beach, and a long, handwritten paper called "The Causes of the World War" that earned an A+ for Mildred Flynn in 1927 along with a professor's exultation: "This shows unusual ability."

But the suitcase bore no tag. No definitive name or address anywhere. So Barnett, 42, kept his eye on the suitcase and promised that, soon, he'd do something more conclusive.

Earlier this month, he came to work at the Woodward Building, at 15th and H streets NW. The first floor had been cleared out. Everything was gone. Including the suitcase.

"That thing got thrown away," some of the others told him -- "pulling my chain," as Barnett calls it now.

"It had better not gotten thrown away!" he remembers shouting. Nearly everyone at the Woodward Building knew that the suitcase "meant a lot to me," he said. He had vowed to find the owners. "And if you say you're going to do something, integrity means everything."

So when some of the guys confessed that the suitcase was lying on a loading cart in the basement, Barnett raced down and started going through every piece of paper, all over again. "There's no way," he worried, "we're going to find somebody who graduated from college in 1923." But on several papers, the name Shaughnessy popped up. One was a Brian Shaughnessy, who was listed on an elementary school graduation program from 1952.

Googling that name, Barnett began calling the 20 numbers that came up. One after another, they had all been disconnected. Or no one was there by that name. Two numbers were attached to addresses on 15th Street, so he and a supervisor trudged up 15th, hoping -- fruitlessly -- to find that grammar school kid.

The last number on his list was for a D.C. lawyer named Brian Shaughnessy. When a man answered the phone, Barnett told him:

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